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Examining native bee population concerns in Delaware and how to help them thrive

State Apiarist Emily Wine inspects one of her honeybee colonies.
Rachel Sawicki
Delaware Public Media
State Apiarist Emily Wine inspects one of her honeybee colonies.

A swarm of environmental threats are driving down bee populations worldwide. In response, honeybees and their keepers in North America became the face of “Save the Bees.”

But apiarists in Delaware are sounding the alarm on the ongoing threat to native bee populations.

Delaware Public Media’s Rachel Sawicki explores the buzz about bees this week with First State experts and advocates, and what Delawareans can do to help certain bee species take flight.

Delaware Public Media’s Rachel Sawicki reports on native bee concerns in the First State

It’s the first time State Apiarist Emily Wine has been out to check on her honeybee colonies this spring. She zips up her bee suit, making sure there are no small openings for the bees to creep into, and stuffs some newspaper and kindling into her bee smoker.

“Basically the smoke calms them down and keeps them from stinging you,” Wine says.

Wine started beekeeping in college more than 10 years ago, originally studying environmental science and then going on to get her masters in entomology. Now she spends most of her days helping beekeepers inspect their colonies and educating wanna-beekeepers.

Today, Wine is looking for varroa mites, the most damaging pest for honeybees.

She scoops out half a cup of bees – around 300 – and dumps them in an alcohol wash. She shakes it, and looks for the mites that settle at the bottom.

“There is one, two, three, four I’m counting,” Wine says. “And that means I’m going to have to treat this spring because the treatment threshold in the spring is one percent.”

Honeybees are not among the 4,000-plus bee species native to North America like Bumblebees or Carpenter bees, but there are more of them now than ever before. And as foreigners, honeybees have also adapted to feed on other nonnative species – thus pollinating them and potentially contributing to invasive plant growth. When a hive is infested with varroa mites, its residents can also carry viruses, risking spillover into native bee populations.

“It’s important to keep your honeybee colonies healthy and make sure they do have low levels of pathogens and viruses so that they’re not spreading that, whether that is to other honeybees or native bees,” Wine says.

The “Save the Bee” movement exploded in the early 2000s, responding to increasing concern about declining bee populations.

DeApiarist Emily Wine looks for Varroa mites in an alcohol wash of some bees.
Rachel Sawicki
Delaware Public Media
State Apiarist Emily Wine looks for Varroa mites in an alcohol wash of some bees.

Wine estimates the number of beekeepers in the state has gone up by about 200, from 301 to 512, since 2006, noting Delaware Bee Law requires that all apiaries be registered annually to maintain accurate records of the number of beekeepers and bee colonies in Delaware, but many often fall behind. It also helps Wine to respond effectively to disease outbreaks.

And now, given the current state of the agriculture industry, Wine says the native bee population isn’t big enough to support all crop pollination.

“For producing honey, for producing wax, for doing pollination, honeybees are critical for agriculture in a way that our native bees are not able to fulfill with the way our current agricultural system is. So we need them for agriculture and they’re great for small business and the economy and being able to produce those hive products.”

But while honeybees offer a helping hand at times, the reality is...

“I would say there is a real bee crisis,” Wine says. “But it’s a native bee crisis, it's not a honey bee crisis.”

That’s backed up by the Delaware Wildlife Action Plan, created by DNREC’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. and approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, It notes certain pollinators are declining in the U.S., and flower-visiting insects account for 50% of all known insect extinctions. Eleven of Delaware's more than 250 species of bees and wasps were identified as Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN).

But a few simple additions to a garden or even a front doorstep can help, and will likely attract native bees over honeybees. Native bees are more solitary, nesting in the ground or other cavities, and are not able to optimize their foraging decisions the way honeybees do – like a democracy, making collective decisions to forage on the most abundant nectar sources and will travel as far as three to five miles to find them.

“If you’ve got this little patch of land by your house, you may not be able to plant enough to attract a whole bunch of honeybees,” Wine says. “But you could provide a good habitat for some native bees that are foraging just in that small range.”

Even so, Wine concedes that with a hive mentality and beekeepers to coddle them, honeybees are not going anywhere anytime soon.

Sussex Vice President of the Delaware Beekeepers Association Jim Hopkins loves his honey bees – this year he’ll be managing more bee colonies than ever before – more than 60 – which at its peak, could amount to more than three million honey bees.

This is the first time Hopkins has cracked his hives open since the fall, and from the looks of it, they’ve been busier than… well… you know.

“I would say there is a real bee crisis. But it’s a native bee crisis, it's not a honey bee crisis.”
Emily Wine, State Apiarist

“See all the larva in here? This is a pretty strong hive, I could split this today,” Hopkins says as he inspects one of his hives.

The queen has been busy making babies, and it’s time to split the hive to make room for more.

But Hopkins isn’t just raising healthy honey bee hives to fight off mites.

While Wine treats any colonies with a one percent varroa mite concentration, Hopkins has two thriving colonies with mite thresholds upwards of 13 percent.

“You see this hive here? That one, and this one with a tag were part of a USDA survey last year,” Hopkins says. “I did not treat them last year. Emily tested them, we were at zero mites the 1st of May. The 2nd of October we were at 13.7 percent. Three percent is a lot. 13.7 percent.”

“I mean at that point, the hive is done right?” I ask.

“Bees are coming out of it,” Hopkins says. “I just split one. There is something about those bees that allowed them to overcome 13.7 percent infestation. That’s the genetic testing I’m doing.”

Hopkins says that “something” is a grooming behavior that honeybees naturally developed in response to varroa mites, and that the USDA is now trying to breed into honeybee populations as fast as possible.

“Allogrooming or auto, auto is themselves, allo is the others,” Hopkins says. “It’s like you see a pride of monkeys picking lice. They’re doing the same type of behavior, it’s a grooming behavior. And it’s a genetic add-on behavior.”

Hopkins says when it comes to honeybees, the pros and cons of how they affect native bees is more of a wash.

“And I think that we need to treat them all as pollinators instead of different species of bees,” Hopkins says. “Because they are all subject to the same environmental hazards whether its temperature or humidity or drought, or what we have here is dearth. We hit July and there is nothing for them to eat.”

Hopkins says today’s bee populations need more grasses and flowering plants not only to feed on, but to hide in and reproduce. And he has an idea of where to plant.

“Just what we’ve done to ditches and median strips is enough to feed them all,” he says. “Save the gas, save the emissions, let it grow, make it beautiful, landscape it, be proud of it. We’re a small state, we can do these things. The worst they could do is take a strip of Kirkwood Highway and turn it into a flower patch. What’s the downside?”

Sussex Vice President of the Delaware Beekeepers Association Jim Hopkins splits a full hive into two to make room for another queen to lay more eggs
Rachel Sawicki
Delaware Public Media
Sussex Vice President of the Delaware Beekeepers Association Jim Hopkins splits a full hive into two to make room for another queen to lay more eggs.

Mt. Cuba Center Public Programs Coordinator Leah Brooks argues that native bees are essential to a diverse ecosystem, and in many ways are better pollinators than honeybees.

Honeybees are great for pollinating certain monoculture crops but they can’t perform buzz pollination like many native bees can, which is essential to increase yield of crops like blueberries, tomatoes, and peppers. She adds native bees are just “messier” pollinators and that increases the chances of pollination as they travel from plant to plant.

“So if we just had honeybees, our native ecosystems would be suffering for it,” Brooks says. “And in some cases, we have the honeybees out-competing the native bees in those ecosystems, and since they are not pollinating the native plants the same way that the native bees are, or they are preventing the native bees from adequately pollinating them, you can run into issues.”

Brooks says many of North America’s native bees are in decline due to habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation.

“Natural habitats like grasslands and forests, they are chock full of native vegetation,” she says. “Those are being replaced at a rapid rate by roadways, monocultured lawns, crops, and nonnative gardens. And when this happens, the natural resources that the native bees need for nesting, overwintering, and foraging, are destroyed, or they’re changed in such a drastic way that the bees can’t adapt and persist to survive in that area.”

And in areas where those sorts of resources are already limited, beekeeping can actually exacerbate the problem.

“Raising honeybees to ‘save the bees’ is like raising chickens to save the birds,” Brooks says. “Native bee populations are declining and I don’t see a reversal in near future unless everybody got on board, and we as a society understood which issues those native bees are facing and how we can fix them. So for people who say to themselves, ‘I want to help so I’m going to look into getting a hive.’ I would say reconsider and instead, think about, ‘I want to help pollinators, let me see how I can help native bees.’ And their first step is if they have a space to do it in, would be planting native flowers.”

For the amateur or expert gardener, Brooks also suggests limiting herbicide and insecticide use to targeted applications instead of non-selective, broad-spectrum sprays.

“Natural habitats like grasslands and forests, they are chock full of native vegetation. Those are being replaced at a rapid rate... And when this happens, the natural resources that the native bees need for nesting, overwintering, and foraging, are destroyed."
Leah Brooks, Mt. Cuba Center Public Programs Coordinator

Best case scenario – eliminate it altogether and adopt an approach known as Integrated Pest Management – combining multiple methods such as attracting natural predators to the garden or pulling weeds by hand.

And for those who don’t have the yard or space for planting, Brooks says they can still be an advocate for native bees – and help change the narrative that bees are scary or threatening.

“They don’t have a hive to protect, they are not protecting their resources or their brood, they’re just doing their own thing,” Brooks says. “So I find that is helpful for people to know, so if you’re scared of bees, and it’s usually from a run-in with a honeybee, that the native bees are usually more relaxed because they don’t have those same things they are trying to protect.”

And as demonstrated by Wine and Hopkins, honeybees aren’t much interested in interacting with people either.

“I think people think that bees are a lot scarier and more aggressive than they actually are,” Wine says. “Like, look at us, we’re standing right in the midst of 200,000 bees or so, and we’re fine.”

But we should be interested in them, Wine says, namely their wellbeing, because the world’s food supply depends on it.

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Rachel Sawicki was born and raised in Camden, Delaware and attended the Caesar Rodney School District. They graduated from the University of Delaware in 2021 with a double degree in Communications and English and as a leader in the Student Television Network, WVUD and The Review.